RV/UV: A Material Concerto Grounded in Sound Anthropology
Manipulating the violent noise emitted from forcing an everyday object into a musical composition demonstrates how researchers similarly compose interviews by shoehorning our recorded subjects into our own beautifully imagined orchestrations. Just as a conductor shapes the symphony, so the researcher conducts the interview.
Two hands clap and there is a sound. What is the sound of one hand?
- Hakuin Ekaku
When I ask people what they think an anthropologist does, I’m usually told something either to do with dinosaurs or excavating ruins. To be fair, even academics have a hard time agreeing on this. I like to think that an anthropologist is trying to learn about what we can’t see. People rely on a lot of things in our daily lives that we don’t see. How we make decisions is one example, and how we know we’re doing something right.
In the heating-up-of-food ritual, many people use a timer to know when the food is done. If you are one of those timer-using people, how do you know how to use the timer? Do you have to read the instructions each time? How do you know the appropriate amount of time has passed, according to the timer? Do you have to look at the timer to know this? Unless you are unable to hear the timer, you learn that “time” is “done” from the sound of the timer. You probably take this understanding for granted, and so it is invisible to you, and therefore of interest to me, an anthropologist. What else are these kinds of “invisible” sounds saying to us?
Acoustemology is a word devised by anthropologist and ethnomusicologist Steven Feld. Blending “Acoustic” and “Epistemology” (A fancy academical word that has to do with “Knowledge”), Feld uses this concept to express that sound is a way of knowing and learning about the world. Feld’s fieldwork in the 1970’s took him to the Kaluli people in the Bosavi forest of Papua New Guinea. Feld collaborated with Grateful Dead musician Mickey Hart to release “Voices of the Rainforest”, which features soundscapes and music from the Bosavi denizens.
Alfred Gell, another anthropologist doing fieldwork in the 1970’s in Papua New Guinea, spent time with the similarly forest-dwelling Umeda people. He describes the environment quite poetically: “Here, in the vibrant, tactile, scented gloom is the landscape of nostalgia and abandonment, so well described by the ethnographers of Kaluli and nearby societies.” To effectively evoke just how limited vision in this environment is, I share Gell’s account:
Like all middle-class Britishers, I share our national obsession with views and panoramas, despite having to peer at them through ever-thickening spectacles. No hill is too rocky, jungly, sun-baked or windswept to deter me if I fancy that I can indulge my craving for distant prospects by ascending it. But Umeda was purgatory in this respect. The surrounding country is by no means flat and there are a number of hills in the vicinity over which I passed frequently on hunting trips or on my way to a patrol post. But on none of these hills was the forest cleared in such a way as to afford a ‘view’ despite my best efforts to find a suitable spot. To this day, I do not know what Umeda village looks like from a distance.
Because sight is of limited use in this landscape, its occupants have relied more on hearing than on vision as a source of truth. Gell shares a story about an Umeda man bursting into his house to tell him about his encounter with an ogre:
He had heard it panting, hu-hu-hu, and he had raced up the path to escape it, but the ogre had doubled round, hiddenly (maksmaks)[*] and before he knew it, the thing was right in front of him, going hu-hu-hu again and he had to cut through the forest to avoid it. Finally, rejoining the path, he had made it home as quick as his legs would carry him. ‘Yes, yes,’ I said, cutting him off, ‘but did you actually see the ogre?’ My informant looked at me in perplexity… For Umeda, hearing is believing, and the Umeda really do hear ogres, or what they take to be ogres.
[*] “The Umeda term for ‘hidden(ly)’, maksmaks, implies not invisibility, but the concealment of auditory clues, as in the silent approach of an assassin.” (Gell, 2004)
I appreciate how casually Gell talks about his Umeda participants, as if they were just really interesting neighbors. A friend visited me in Portland, Oregon, and we decided to go on a downtown underground walking tour. The theme of this tour turned out to be less historical and more “haunted”. I do not believe in ghosts. However, when walking through a dense, dank, dark passage deep below the ground while being told first-hand stories about ghostly sightings, it’s hard not to attach supernatural imaginings to perfectly innocent creaks and water drips. If I were in Gell’s informant’s place, I’d probably think an ogre was chasing me too.
“If there’s lots of found art out there, there’s lots of found anthropology too.”
To practice ethnography, the anthropologist must go into the field. We call the (usually human) things we encounter in the field “participants”. Being good scientists, we jot down everything we observe and experience in our field notebooks using rich text description, trying our best not to leave out any detail. Some anthropologists also use photographs, and a few even make recordings. This method is called “participant observation”.
These recordings can very easily become incontestable factual evidence. Has someone ever repeated something you’ve said, out of context? What a person chooses not to record can often be more important than what they do record. Many photographs and recordings remove the person doing the recording from the final representation, so we don’t even think to question their intention (or their methods)[*]. When looking at photographs from National Geographic, for example, do you ever consider who took the photograph and why they took it? Do you ever wonder how those photographed may have benefited from it, if at all?
[*] “The tool stands in for a whole for a whole process from which it erases itself.” Sterne, Jonathan. The audible past: Cultural origins of sound reproduction. Duke University Press, 2003. See also: Brady, Erika. A spiral way: How the phonograph changed ethnography. Univ. Press of Mississippi, 1999.
There’s been an idea floating around since just after the Renaissance that a scientific observer can be a purely detached, bias-neutral source of authority. This view is called positivism. Positivism posits that there exist rational truths governing the universe, and through careful observation and deductive analysis we can extract them. That is to say what is true for one person is true for everyone. The problem is that people are all so different that as soon as someone posits such a truth, there’s always someone else willing and able to contradict them. Take vanilla flavor for example or the color navy blue. Even though most people assume no one could possibly find anything wrong with these, there are probably Facebook groups dedicated to their demise by people who detest them.
Unfortunately, being right is often more important than being honest, so it becomes convenient to ignore these kinds of contradictions. Even though I think of myself as pretty open-minded and easy going, I, probably like you, struggle with this in my small day to day life. Most of my misunderstandings happen because these kinds of beliefs are hidden from me. My own hidden beliefs, as an anthropologist interested in things unseen, are therefore interesting to me.
Anthropologists call this self-interest “reflexivity”. As anthropologists interact with others, we seek to cultivate an awareness of how we are interacting with them, including, according to anthropologist Jay Hasbrouck, “an awareness of the impact that the ethnographer has on interactions in a particular setting, and ensuring that they’re not exceptionally disruptive.” As a more literary story-telling approach got into the mix via anthropologists such as Clifford Geertz, George Marcus, and James Clifford, ethnographers started reflecting more on inequalities between themselves and the people they were anthropologizing. In practice, this “refluxivity” was criticized for focusing too much on the anthropologist. There wasn’t much room left for anyone else in the field, let alone scientific inquiry. This approach to ethnography is associated with postmodernism, a reaction to positivism.
The problem with traditional participant observation, whether positivist or postmodern, lies in how it requires the authority of a self-made author for the work to be deemed credible, or even relevant. Being an audience of one sitting on the sidelines and looking down your nose at people isn’t really “participating”. There’s a game called telephone where people sit in a circle. One person whispers something to the person next to them. That person then whispers it to the person next to them and this travels around the circle until the last person shares what message they understood. Some kinds of information make it around the circle intact. Others don’t. Scientific observation is also like this.
Instead of imposing navy blue or vanilla, how can scientific research make space for more flavors, or colors? Sarah Pink, an anthropologist who specializes in applied industry research, describes ethnography as a process of shared place-making between researcher, participants, and whoever else engages with the research. Pink advocates for methods that rely on sensory experience as a basis for scientific inquiry, not just thinking and observing. Instead of forcing participants to fit into the researcher’s ideas about who they are, Pink recommends that we open ourselves up to sharing experiences together, such as sharing new foods, learning a skill, or even making something together. In her book Doing Sensory Ethnography, Pink writes, “if one of the objectives of the ethnographer is to come to know as others do, then we need to account for the processes through which we, and the participants in our research, come to know.” This co-creative approach changes the focus of anthropological research from “Why do they do what they do?” to “How do we learn and know?”.
Pink and other anthropologists have also been challenging how this kind of research should be represented. How do you respond when someone says, “I know.”? Do you even want to respond? Proving a thesis produces a statement of Truth. This kind of knowledge “product” makes for a dead-end that invites critique, not curiosity. Arnd Schneider and Christopher Wright are anthropologists actively curating volumes such as Between Art and Anthropology chock-full of examples demonstrating how artistic practice can transform ethnographic work into a more open and collaborative “knowledge-generating” process [*]. One way of making this shift currently being explored in Native studies is to treat the research site as a performance [**]. Dylan Robinson, a Native scholarly writer and curator, has even proposed decolonizing representation through musical co-creativity in his book Hungry Listening: Resonant Theory for Indigenous Sound Studies. I personally like to think of this kind of ongoing “knowledge-ing” performance as “learning”.
[*] “In such open-ended, experimental design arrangements ‘knowledge is produced through experience rather than simply replicated’, and the aim is to ‘emerge’ knowledge rather than to simply find it, or it being embodied in a ‘final product’.” (Schneider and Wright, 2010)
[**] Stephanie Nohelani Teves quoted in Native Keywords: “Performance theory attends to how identities are constituted by performance itself rather than trying to find the subject that existed before the performance.”
“Having come to the studio to make noises speak, I stumble onto music.”
- Pierre Schaeffer (GRM/Musique Concrète)
Many of my GenX peers had an experience with the song “Hold On” by Wilson Phillips. When they were going through a difficult time, the song convinced them not to commit suicide. While the words played an important part, the music invited them to imagine themselves into a more hopeful place. Do you know a song that invites you to imagine yourself into another place?
Imagination, or magic, according to Alfred Gell, is how we weave our past understanding into our present experience, utilizing both our intellect and our sensory experiences. We have sensory experiences when our bodies make contact with things (and each other). French philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty proposed these sensory experiences do not happen in isolation, but are “overlaid by a body of knowledge” that also does not exist in isolation. Quoting Merleau-Ponty from his book The Phenomenology of Perception: “My body is not a collection of adjacent organs but a synergistic system, all of the functions of which are exercised and linked together in the general action of being in the world.” A more contemporary way of expressing this to think of material (including our bodies) as an entangled continuum [*]. Entangled means that things do not stand alone in isolation from the rest of the world, including us. We are woven into things (and things are woven into us) through bodily contact and sensory experience. Things come from somewhere, they remind us of someplace, and they inspire us somehow.
[*] This meshes well with how many of us engage with media and social media, in particular. See Grant McCracken’s book in Sources at the end of this essay.
Because we are so interwoven, the actual boundary between thing and us is uncertain. On the surface, this boundary appears to be obvious, but this is one of those hidden beliefs that anthropologists like myself find so interesting. Driving is an excellent example. It’s easy to distinguish between yourself, car, and passengers when you’re in your own car. How easily are you able to make the same distinction when driving with other cars on the road? You might blame another driver for cutting you off, but you can also refer to the car and be just as easily understood. Who is held responsible if you hit another car? Did you hit the other car or did your car hit the other car? Both are valid. The person who was hit can similarly describe themselves as being hit by you or by your car. Your accident then creates “traffic” which other drivers use as an excuse for being late. What is traffic but a woven basket of cars, drivers, passengers, bicycles, road construction, stop lights, crosswalks, curb cuts, school zones, policies, budgets, and voter referendums (to name a few)?
Being a continuum means things don’t sit still. They are constantly in motion. Materials are always being altered in some way and, even in a vacuum, materials degrade. In Japan, this natural wear and tear is a prized aesthetic called wabi-sabi. Similarly, many Americans appreciate rustic and shabby chic. The way we perceive things changes them too. Not long ago, I tried watching a classic 80’s movie I remembered really liking as a teenager. I couldn’t even watch the whole thing, it was so bad. Even music I liked in my 20’s sounds different to me now. These recordings are the same, so what’s changed?
Trying to imagine things in isolation from ourselves further demonstrates this notion of entanglement. I’d like to invite you to open and close a door. When you close the door, does the sound come only from the door? How does how you close the door, whether you slam it or shut it gently, affect the sound the door makes? Does the door get yelled at for slamming itself? If you ask someone how they feel about the sound of the door slamming, the sound of the door can be considered without mentioning the door itself or who (or what) has slammed it. Yet the person and the door have to be present in some way, or else the sound of door slamming doesn’t make any sense.
GRM, Groupe de Recherches Musicales (originally Groupe de Recherche de Musique Concrète), was a French research laboratory founded in 1951 by Pierre Schaeffer. Schaeffer tried to completely isolate sound by recording and looping samples from phonograph records. This experimentation led to a practice of using sound samples completely alienated from their original context, which attempted to focus the listener’s attention on the material quality of the sound rather than its “meaning”. This practice is also known as “reduced listening” or “Acousmatics”. If you attempted the door slamming experiment suggested above, you may have come to a similar understanding as GRM and performance artists such as John Cage. Can sound be isolated from its meaning? Can material?
“[To dwell] is, literally to be embarked upon a movement along a way of life.”
- Tim Ingold
Tim Ingold, yet another anthropologist, has criticized material culture studies in anthropology for either being too “social” or too abstract: “The materials, it seems, have gone missing.” So, I decided to take up Ingold’s gauntlet. Just as sheet music can only suggest the idea of a song, theory is just a map. To become a virtuoso at improvisation, the ethnographer must pick up their instrument of choice and practice. Thanks to the pandemic, I’ve been spending a lot of time at home, and so have many of my neighbors. I’ve been thinking a lot about home and what it means to “dwell”. This question is particularly interesting in my case, because I live in a motorhome situated in an RV park community.
Everyone’s got their fun pandemic hobby, so as an anthropologist, I thought why not explore using sound as ethnographic medium in my own community? Participants (including me) made bodily contact with materials in our motorhomes and community common spaces while I recorded the performance using my trusty handheld Roland R-05 recorder. I composed a musical work in Adobe Audition using the collected sound samples, and shared it with my participants. Rather than writing up my research in a more traditional academic way, I’ve created a narrative that my fellow participants can also participate in reading.
Considering Ingold’s challenge, along with many other voices in my head, the questions framing my inquiry were: 1) How can I make material the center of this inquiry?; 2) How can hearing enrich an understanding of material?; 3) How does a multimodal sensory approach to ethnography create knowledge?
“Places do not exist so much as they occur.”
- Tim Ingold
Group Ongaku was an improvisational, experimental music group founded by ethnomusicology students in Tokyo in the late 1950’s. According to sound artist Brandon LaBelle, Group Ongaku explored a kind of “spatial resistance” that resituated the domestic into making music with found objects in each others’ homes. This created a vocabulary of sound based on bodily contact. Per LaBelle, Group Ongaku’s musical work demonstrates an acoustemology grounded in the interpenetration of noise, body, and objects in sites of everyday life.
I grouped the sounds by who had access to the dwelling structure. The Welcome Center is fully open to pretty much anyone who walks in off the street. Individual motorhomes are private spaces that I was invited into. The Mailroom and the Laundromat are common spaces that can only be accessed by people staying in the RV park. To maintain the authenticity of place in each sound sample, I only did minimal editing, keeping background and other noises intact. I wanted to avoid too much human voice, just enough to remind us of the people without stealing the focus from the materials.
Similar to Group Ongaku’s recorded works, participants were primarily drawn to objects within structures, not the structure itself. When ensnaring volunteers in common spaces, although they had consented verbally, their body language told a different story. I was unable to use these sounds because of my ethical concerns and also because they talked or laughed during recording. I decided to use my own body to re-make the sounds, pointing to how ethnographers endeavor to put ourselves into our participants’ place.
For inspiration, I based my composition structure on Gershwin’s Concerto in F. The classical concerto format calls for three movements: Allegro, Andante, Allegro. I have kept these names as a reference to that format, not as actual indicators of tempo. Using a rigid classical format speaks to the traditional Eurocentric thesis and my own relationship to academia through the discipline of Anthropology. Program music provides the precedent for aural story telling.
John Wynne, multimodal ethnographer and sound artist, has described his own investigation of the boundaries between documentary and abstraction as “composed documentary”. Wynne writes in Between Art and Anthropology: “[A]s my work oscillates… between sound and music, documentary and abstract elements inform each other so that the listener’s experience is enriched through their interaction in ways that it wouldn’t be through either conventional documentary or musical abstraction of recorded material alone.”
My participants aren’t big fans of avante-garde dissonance, and I personally find it requires a lot of concentration for me to appreciate it. I wanted to be able to enjoy listening to the final work with my participants and I wanted it to be something they’d want to share. I placed the sound samples together in loose rhythms to shape the “musical” qualities of the sounds. In addition to sampling, splicing, and looping (oh, my!), I made use of stereo panning to mimic the experience of an orchestra, which also evokes emplacement. My use of fades and selective amplification highlight different sonic qualities in polyphonic combinations, which also keeps the sounds from becoming a muddy mess. I paired different sounds with similar qualities made by different participants to evoke entanglement.
Incorporating this kind of manipulation and abstraction into ethnographic representation, Wynne suggests, “can, rather than obscuring the actuality from which it was derived, convey meanings and reveal characteristics hidden from the senses in the context of real-time experience or even when listening to untreated recordings.” I decided to make a musical composition rather than a soundscape because music more directly engages the listener’s attention, emotion, and imagination.
Imagination plays a key role in making effectively convincing ethnographic representation that invites learning (or “knowledge-ing”). According to Sarah Pink: “The task of the sensory ethnographer is to invite their audience to imagine themselves into the places of both ethnographer & participants.” A fully fleshed-out hypothesis doesn’t need to be pre-determined for the ethnography to carry value; intention is sufficient. Such “intentional interactions” Pink says could include “working with a song… with one’s research participants.” Anthropologist Vincent Crapanzano (via Pink) challenges: “[C]an we not imagine the beyond in musical terms?”
Sound artist John Levack Drever writes about composing soundscapes as ethnographic practice:
A contemporary ethnographic approach to soundscape composition may require that the composer displace authorship of the work, engaging in a collaborative process, facilitating the local inhabitants to speak for themselves in ‘an interplay of voices, of positioned utterances’. The final work should be made available to those that it explores, and their responses should be acknowledged and heard, activating a dialogue rather than a one-way communication.
Among the points Drever draws upon regarding the knowledge-making credibility of such imagined soundscape compositions, he quotes: “The work enhances our understanding of the world, and its influence carries over into everyday perceptual habits.” Participants, including community members who did not make sounds but only listened to the final compositions, have since reported being more aware of the musical quality of various sounds in their environments, and have even been making suggestions for future compositions.
I’ll let the credentialed scholars wax poetic on the value of sound as an expressive medium using words like intersubjectivity, intercontextual, interspatial, and telepresence. To me, sound’s teaching is much simpler. Sound invites us to imagine ourselves into the material, and become it [*].
[*] See “The Boy who Became a Muni Bird” in Steven Feld’s book, Sound and Sentiment, listed under Sources.
Dear reader, I invite you to listen to this composition, and hear for yourself what kind of place each movement inspires you to imagine yourself into. Individual tracks provide a list of the materials making each sound, in order of appearance.
What are you more aware of? How has this listening experience changed how you hear?
Drever, John L. “Soundscape composition: the convergence of ethnography and acousmatic music.” Organised Sound 7, no. 1 (2002): 21–27.
Engelke, Matthew. How to think like an anthropologist. Princeton University Press, 2019.
Feld, Steven. Sound and Sentiment: Birds, Weeping, Poetics, and Song in Kaluli Expression, with a new introduction by the author. Duke University Press, 2012.
Feld, Steven. “Dialogic editing: interpreting how Kaluli read sound and sentiment.” Cultural Anthropology 2, no. 2 (1987): 190–210.
Gell, Alfred. The language of the forest: landscape and phonological iconism in Umeda. 2004.
Gell, Alfred. Art and agency: an anthropological theory. Clarendon Press, 1998.
Gell, Alfred. “Technology and magic.” Anthropology Today 4, no. 2 (1988): 6–9.
Hasbrouck, Jay. Ethnographic thinking: From method to mindset. Routledge, 2017.
Ingold, Tim. Being alive: Essays on movement, knowledge and description. Taylor & Francis, 2011.
Kahn, Douglas. Noise, water, meat: A history of sound in the arts. MIT press, 1999.
LaBelle, Brandon. Background noise: perspectives on sound art. Bloomsbury Publishing USA, 2015.
McCracken, Grant. Chief culture officer: How to create a living, breathing corporation. Basic Books, 2011.
Merleau-Ponty, Maurice. Phenomenology of perception. Routledge, 1982.
Novak, David, and Matt Sakakeeny, eds. Keywords in sound. Duke University Press, 2015.
Pink, Sarah. Doing sensory ethnography. Sage, 2015.
Robinson, Dylan. Hungry Listening: Resonant Theory for Indigenous Sound Studies. U of Minnesota Press, 2020.
Schneider, Arnd, and Christopher Wright, eds. Between art and anthropology: contemporary ethnographic practice. Berg Publishers, 2010.
Teves, Stephanie Nohelani, Andrea Smith, and Michelle Raheja, eds. Native studies keywords. University of Arizona Press, 2015.